"Wreck-It Ralph" has quickly gone from Oscar dark horse to front runner since the nominations: an acknowledgment that it not only thwarts our expectations of what a Disney movie should be but also that it's much more than a nostalgic video game romp. Indeed, it has struck an emotional chord in the unlikely friendship between its principal outsiders, the hulking Ralph (John C. Reilly) and the snarky Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). And if "Ralph" wins the Oscar, it would signal that Disney's not only back but that John Lasseter and Ed Catmull have also successfully co-mingled two distinct cultures at Pixar and Disney.
"What I hear a lot is people saying, ''Ralph' is like Pixar film,' which is the highest compliment," admits "Ralph" director Rich Moore about his first experience at Disney after a successful career on TV's "The Simpsons" and "Futurama."
"We're sibling studios, we work closely together and the two cultures are crossing the streams at this point and exploring what makes each other unique but still being true to the studio from which it comes. And coming to Disney means a lot to me. Personally, it was a Disney film, 'The Jungle Book,' that lit the fire and pushed me to where I am today."
But coming to Disney as an outsider gave Moore the opportunity to both embrace and subvert the animation legacy. It wasn't enough that "Ralph" was like making three movies in one with its three retro video game worlds (the 8-bit "Niceland," the "Halo"-like "Hero's Duty," and the candy-coated "Sugar Rush"), Moore had to pull it all together with Ralph and Vanellope.
"My experience with 'The Simpsons' is that if you're going to be subversive you have to be heartfelt," Moore suggests. "It has to feel humane and that's what I wanted with this movie. And my job as a director has always been the same: to tell a story worth telling in a world we believe with characters we love and care about."
Of the three video game worlds, "Sugar Rush" proved the most fun and daunting and most Disney-like in its charm and whimsy, a tasty place where there are plenty of visual puns but it's not all Laughy Taffy thrills.
"This was the area where the animators could go all out with the style of the animation that harkens back to the Disney of the golden age with 'Peter Pan' and 'Alice in Wonderland,'" Moore recalls. "And with the technology we continued with the success of 'Tangled' by taking the spirit of the 2D animation and bringing it into the medium of computer animation in a way that feels new and relevant."
This included a new virtual camera called the Capture Camera system that allows artists to visualize and stage environments, layouts, camera movements, and the placement and interaction of elements within a scene. "The virtual camera was fantastic to be able use for layout just to get that hand-held quality that was prevalent during the 'Hero's Duty' section," Moore adds. "It was like playing a video game and made work feel like it did in college."
But making the curvaceous caricature of candy using the architecture of Barcelona as a guide required a new bidirectional lighting system for a more believable look in the way light reflects off of and rolls over surfaces. "The artists working in that area would come up to me in the hall and say, 'You have no idea of what we've cracked in making this film.' They thanked me for having the vision for a world that made it possible for them to develop this gummy light as a new tool."
However, getting the best performances out of Reilly and Silverman was the key to "Ralph's" storytelling success. Unlike most animated features, Moore insisted that they record their voice sessions together to create the right chemistry and to capture the subtle nuances that the animators could take advantage of.
"There was a vision for the humanity of what those characters could be beyond funny," Moore concedes. "We knew early on when we had our table read that Sarah was perfect for the part. Anyone who thought she was rough around the edges or a little too blue for animation was now convinced she was Vanellope.
"And when I was first developing Ralph with John in mind, I knew he knew the character better than anyone. There is something intangible in John's performances that I wanted for Ralph. He was a little skeptical about the animation process that he had heard from friends. And I told him that we would develop a process that works for both of us. We're not slaves to a method here."
Although there is nothing official yet about a sequel (an Oscar would certainly be the clincher), Moore admits there have been conversations about a definite direction. "I think we've barely scratched the surface of what stories about video games could be. We spent a lot of time in classic arcade games and I would love to bring it up to date and take it into the world of home gaming and online gaming and mobile gaming. We had a great time playing with the nostalgia of those early video games from arcades and I would like to fold in more of what's happening today and to bring Ralph into that world and visit different game worlds and meeting different characters and bringing in more characters that we know from other games."
As Moore says, he couldn't have come to Disney at a better time, when they've learned to embrace the legacy and take it in new directions.